Crucial meeting held for uncertain future of Malahat Review

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Community members, UVic profs, and Deans meet to get on the same page about the future of prestigious journal

People sitting in a room
Members of the community and the university met to discuss the Malahat Review on Thursday, May 10. Photo by Cormac O’Brien, Editor-in-Chief

Members of the Victoria writing community and high-ranking university officials gathered downtown at the Greater Victoria Public Library (GVPL) on May 10 to discuss the uncertain future of The Malahat Review.

Forty people—including both Dean of Humanities Chris Goto-Jones and Dean of Fine Arts Susan Lewis—squeezed into a meeting room to discuss a stable solution for the editorial structure of the prestigious Canadian literary journal that has been under the stewardship of UVic for 50 years.

By end of the two-hour meeting, which saw questions about the diversity of prospective editors, and sustainable funding methods for the journal, the community and UVic representatives seemed to be mostly on the same page. It was a significant shift from the tone of anxiety that preceded the meeting.

The meeting was called after John Barton, UVic alumnus and editor at the Malahat since 2004, resigned earlier this year ( due to unrelated matters) and the university decided to restrict prospective replacements to only regular UVic faculty members.

This drew plenty of criticism from the Victoria literary community, many of who believed that the position should be opened up to candidates from the public. These community members hoped to attain a more diverse set of candidates with a large network of connections in the Canadian writing community and extensive experience in journal publishing.

“People who love the Malahat are going to want to contribute to keep the Malahat going,” Cameron said.

In response, four writers, including former editor of Arc Poetry Magazine Anita Lahey, organized the meeting, inviting community members and university representatives.

“I felt concerned and dismayed at the possibility of a real loss,” Lahey told the crowd at the meeting of her reaction to the initial news. “A publication such as the Malahat is to Canadian writers what a respected scholarly journal is to its field of study. It’s a focal point, a testing ground, a catalyst, a laboratory, a professional community, and a hub.”

Goto-Jones and Lewis were joined by Margaret Cameron, Associate Dean for Research in Humanities and university official in charge of organizing the search for the next Malahat editor. In the meeting, the three explained that the switch to a faculty editor was an interim, three-year solution to the biggest problem the journal faced: its structural relationship with the university.

The problem for The Malahat Review, the Deans explained, is that Barton’s resignation meant the funding allocated for the position (60 per cent of a typical assistant professor salary) disappeared entirely due to the nature of his employment — despite not teaching any classes, Barton was technically employed as an Assistant Professor on a faculty line. This meant that the position would not automatically be renewed with a new editor.

Since departmental funding at UVic is partially determined by EETs (“equivalent enrolments taught” — a numeric value assigned to a department based on student enrollment levels), the chances of the faculty line returning after Barton’s departure were slim to none.

Now, the Deans are looking toward fundraising for an endowment that will ideally be able to allay the journal’s debt in three years’ time, and financially support a full-time editor for The Malahat Review in the long term.

“People who love the Malahat are going to want to contribute to keep the Malahat going,” Cameron said.

The Deans stressed that the most viable option while the endowment grows would be to hire within the university as the Malahat undergoes its three-year transition period. This option would allow the Malahat to take advantage of various communication and fundraising officers at the university, while also staying close to the UVic Library, which has committed to supporting the journal.

They assured the crowd that The Malahat Review wouldn’t change itself during the transition phase. Instead, at the end of three years, the university would be in a better position to hire an external full-time editor — an attractive position for many literary talents across the country.

While many seemed happy with the explanation, there still remained some contention among community members who feared for the future of the Malahat.  

“My fear is that a lot of it was very polished.”

Some attendees criticized the lack of diversity among potential faculty nominees for the position, while others made the point that the Writing department, whose classes are few and far between to begin with, could hardly afford to lose a professor.

Others wondered just how genuine the evening had been.

“I hoped for answers. I felt that we received answers. My fear is that a lot of it was very polished,” UVic Writing alumni Garth Martens said when asked for his thoughts on the meeting.

“So often bureaucracies and the actors within those systems say they’re powerless to make the choices that we all agree are the right choices or the best choices,” Martens said. “But they are not powerless to make the decisions that are putting a magazine in peril.”

Nevertheless, the end of the meeting had a far more collegial feeling than the beginning. A follow up meeting in the library was discussed, but not formally planned, as was the potential for a community advisory board for the journal. Both would support bridging the divide between the Malahat’s operational structure and the community behind it.

“We lacked a mechanism by which to access this community, they brought us to them, and I think we had a very productive, open conversation with a plan for building future relationships,” said Cameron after the meeting.

It is not a split that will be repaired easily, and the tension surrounding the change means that any step by the university will be scrutinized and criticized.

Responding to a particularly pointed question, the Deans acknowledged this.

“You don’t owe us your trust,” Goto-Jones said. “So, we will prove it as we go along.”

This article has been updated to correct the fact that John Barton resigned, not retired, from The Malahat Review. We sincerely regret the error.